HEALTH bosses at the centre of a bullying row have been accused of “blacklisting” experienced radiologists and refusing to hire them despite a severe staff shortage.

The Herald understands that three former consultants have approached the health board in recent months to indicate their desire to return to work there amid a change of management which saw under fire chief executive, Elaine Mead, step down in December.

Read more: Global hunt for 32 consultant radiologists sees just five posts filled 

All were turned down - including one who had an existing job offer rescinded after commenting publicly on the bullying row.

He has since raised a grievance, claiming he has been "barred from employment due to whistleblowing".

As recently as November, NHS Highland’s own board papers noted that its radiology service, which plays a vital role in diagnosing cancer, was buckling under “unprecedented pressure predominately due to a shortage of radiologists”.

Senior clinicians had expressed concern over the “implications of the situation in relation to quality and patient safety”.

Yet despite the crisis, three highly experienced consultant radiologists have been told that no vacancies are being advertised at the moment.

It comes after NHS Highland whistleblowers wrote to the Herald last September to raise the alarm over an alleged culture of “fear and intimidation” emanating from “the very top” of the organisation.

Read more: Highland medics blast 'culture of fear and intimidation' at health board 

The outcry saw hundreds more staff come forward to share experiences of bullying and harassment, and the issue is now the subject of a Scottish Government-commissioned review led by John Sturrock QC.

A second consultant - currently employed by another health board, but who wanted to return full-time to NHS Highland - has been a vocal critic online of NHS bullying problems, and was also rejected.

The third, who lives in the Inverness area, is working as a locum in Wales instead.

All three are highly-skilled senior clinicians with years of experience at NHS Highland.

One of the consultants, who spoke to the Herald on condition of anonymity, said: “This is all about spite and bullying and bitterness and revenge. It’s blacklisting.

"They just have this blanket policy whereby anyone who’s left they’re not going to take back, as if they’re somehow tarnished.

"It’s due to weak management that all this has happened in the first place. This is classic dysfunction, and exactly what Mr Sturrock is looking into as we speak.”

Read more: The Fife doctor 'bullied out of job' says whistleblowing has ended her career 

The latest official figures, from September 2018, show that NHS Highland had 12 consultant radiologists in post, but five vacancies.

Since mid-August, some emergency radiology patients have had to be transferred to Grampian or Tayside for treatment after NHS Highland’s only remaining permanent interventional radiologist retired.

Figures obtained by the Herald under freedom of information also revealed yesterday that NHS Highland was among the health boards who failed to attract any new consultant radiologists through the Scottish Government’s global recruitment drive.

The initiative, launched in February 2018, aimed to bring an extra 32 of the specialist medics to Scotland - but filled just five posts.

However, the Herald understands that NHS Highland has hired foreign radiologists who did not make the criteria for the official campaign, including interventional radiologists from Italy who do not do out-of-hours emergency cover.

A doctor from India who is not yet consultant grade and still requires on-the-job training was also recruited, but NHS Highland said this "pre-dated the Government's international recruitment drive".

Dr Nicola Strickland, president of the Royal College of Radiologists, said: “It is surprising that any Scottish health board, particularly one that has had recent recruitment and retention difficulties, would not jump at the offer of three highly trained, senior and experienced radiology consultants.

“Their recruitment would not only help improve radiological services but boost morale within the department.

"If there have been any difficulties in the past, all parties should be encouraged to put these to one side – the only important consideration is how best to deliver high quality local patient care.”

Edward Mountain, Conservative MSP for the Highlands, said he would be stressing the importance of tackling staff shortages when he meets with NHS Highland’s new chief executive, Iain Stewart, on February 22.

Mr Mountain added: “There are far too many gaps in the key departments of NHS Highland, which mean patients often have to travel to other health boards for treatment.

“I will be urging Iain to look locally before he travels further afield to find staff. He may well find retired staff who will come back to NHS Highland, which I would welcome.”

A spokesman for NHS Highland said it was "in the process of carrying out some detailed work to identify our precise requirements in relation to radiology staffing"

He added: "Once this exercise is complete we will advertise any necessary posts in the usual way.

"When we are clear on our requirements we would welcome all applications from suitably qualified radiologists with the relevant skills and experience. We are delighted to hear that there may be interest.

"In the last six months we have been fortunate in recruiting two fixed term interventional radiologists from overseas but we received no other applications to these posts when they were advertised.

"These posts were not designed to include out of hours emergency general radiology.

"NHS Highland, like many boards, did not ultimately benefit from the Scottish Government’s international recruitment drive for radiology.

"We have however been fortunate in recruiting an experienced speciality doctor from overseas who we are supporting to achieve specialist registration with the GMC.

"This is in line with our longer terms strategy to recruit radiologists who can undertake on the job training at sub-consultant level whilst working towards consultant posts and hopefully securing their future employment here in the Highlands."